The hills of North Carolina have a knack for inspiring hummable folk tunes. Fortunately for the guitar-toting transplants in Asheville-based folk-rock band River Whyless, the area’s influence isn’t limited to natives.
The members of the quartet—singer/guitarist Ryan O’Keefe, singer/violinist Halli Anderson, singer/bassist Dan Shearin, and drummer Alex McWalters—hail from across the country, but didn’t tap into their rootsy sound until meeting at Appalachian State University in Boone in 2006.
“Ryan and I ran on the cross-country team, and eventually we started making music together,” McWalters says. “A guy we were playing with at the time introduced us to Halli and everything sort of fell into place.”
It wasn’t until around 2009, when the then-trio, who performed under a different name at the time, moved to Asheville and met Shearin that River Whyless was born. “Our sound just sort of evolved and we realized that the band needed a makeover,” McWalters says. “So we changed the name, starting rehearsing like crazy, and got on track to where we are today.”
So far, the group’s revamp has proven successful. National tours with Americana staples like Ben Sollee and Railroad Earth have swelled their fan base and, just a few weeks ago, a photo of the band performing at Kings Barcade in Raleigh, N.C., was featured, much to their surprise, in The New York Times’ 36 Hours section.
“The Times thing was very, very awesome, but totally random,” McWalters says. “We didn’t even know it was happening until it was already in the news.”
River Whyless’ debut album, 2012’s A Stone, a Leaf, an Unfound Door, is equal parts toe-tapping jams and wistful, layered harmonies. Recorded at the band’s home studio in Asheville, the songs stitch together Anderson’s velvety violin playing and a rotating ensemble of percussion. It’s clear that O’Keefe and Anderson’s love-drunk harmonies are a focal point for the group, which relies on the pair to kick-start the writing process.
“Ryan and Halli write the bones and lyrics of the songs, and we eventually start chipping away at them as a group,” McWalters says. “Sometimes we start working and it evolves into something completely different.”
That creative process has come in handy lately. The group ditched their plans to head to Austin’s SXSW festival in favor of staying in Asheville to record a four-song demo for their upcoming second album.
“We’re just going to put [the songs] out into the world and see what kind of response we get,” McWalters says. “Essentially, we’re trying to get some help to make the actual record itself. We’re really excited about it since it’s been almost two years since our last one.”
In addition to facilitating a tight-knit bond, the band’s frequent touring has allowed them to test their new material on an eager and receptive audience.
“We’ve played three out of the four songs live, so we’ve got a pretty good feel for them,” says McWalters, who adds that their style has progressed over the years. “It’s always been along the folk-rock lines, but if you go back and listen to our old stuff it’s quite a bit different. Our newer material is moving in that same general direction, but it’s more seasoned.”
Pop folk, new Americana—whatever you want to call it, River Whyless is on track to join similar bands like the Head and the Heart, Of Monsters and Men, and Lord Huron as ambassadors of one of popular music’s of-the-moment genre. Anderson and O’Keefe’s ruminative duets complement layered guitars, while bursts of bells and other spontaneous instrumentals create a “we’re just making this up as we go along!” vibe.
That happy-go-lucky mentality has struck a chord with East Tennessee audiences. River Whyless isn’t a stranger to Knoxville or to the Rhythm N’ Blooms roster—they have played a handful of shows at Preservation Pub and took the stage at the Square Room for last year’s festival. But even though they’ve made an appearance before, the group is excited to showcase their new material this time around.
“Things have been crazy lately, with the Times, recording, and everything,” McWalters says. “It’ll be nice to get out there and share what we’ve been working on.”